The market may be slow but new technologies for vehicles are appearing at a blistering pace.

Most are in the realm of safety, but some are pure convenience. Typically, innovative features from the manufacturers are offered on higher-end cars as options and eventually trickle down to less expensive vehicles as cost declines, awareness increases and demand grows.

Equipment and features the public takes for granted today — electric ignition, automatic windshield wipers, power steering, airbags, cruise control and many more — began life as unexpected advances that dazzled the public. When GM introduced the first automatic transmission — its Hydra-Matic Drive — in the 1940 Oldsmobile, it was a $57 option and more of a curiosity than a “gotta-have” feature. Today automatic transmissions have advanced to the point of providing as many as eight forward gears, driver-shift options, computerized driver-adaptable shifting and different shifting modes, such as “sport,” “touring” and “snow.” But in 1940, not stirring the transmission yourself was a radical concept and only well-heeled risk takers ponied up the extra cash for the new technology.

Today’s “cutting edge” is tomorrow’s “commonplace.” Here is a collection of technologies already offered that could be mainstream just a year or two from now.

8 great new car gadgets
  • Rear-mounted radar.
  • Night vision with pedestrian detection.
  • Automatic high-beam control.
  • Parental control.
  • GPS vehicle tracking.
  • Cameras.
  • Driver capability.
  • In-car Internet.

Rear-mounted radar

Backing out of a parking space in a busy lot can be an adventure. Although rear-pointing radar has been around for a few years alerting drivers to unseen objects immediately behind them — a fence, wall, tree or another vehicle — new radar technology searches for approaching cross traffic. When it “sees” traffic approaching while you’re backing up, it sounds an alarm. Chrysler’s version is available in its minivans and is called Cross Path Detection System. It includes visual indicators in the outboard mirrors. Ford’s system is called Cross Traffic Alert. Offered in the just-released 2010 Fusion and Mercury Milan, it also has outboard mirror alarm indicators.

Night vision with pedestrian detection

Although night vision in vehicles isn’t a new technology — Cadillac offered it in 2000 — the Mercedes-Benz updated version is called Night View Assist Plus. Unlike the Night View Assist, which has been available in the S-Class since 2005, the new system pinpoints pedestrians, highlighting them on a dashboard display. It’s offered in the 2010 E-Class in showrooms late this spring. BMW has a similar system with a pedestrian identifier that also shows the direction the pedestrian is moving. As the distance closes between pedestrian and vehicle, a warning appears on the night vision monitor as well as the head-up display on the windshield if so equipped. BMW offers this system on the 2009 7 Series.

Automatic high-beam control

In the redesigned RX, Lexus offers a system that automatically illuminates and dims the high-beam headlights in relation to approaching traffic. A camera mounted on the rearview mirror detects when the vehicle is closing in on oncoming traffic, as well as vehicles ahead traveling in the same direction, and disengages the high beams. Mercedes-Benz takes the technology one step further with its Adaptive Highbeam Assist. Also found in the new E-Class, it doesn’t merely switch between low and high beams, but reacts by gradually increasing or lowering the light distribution based on the distance of approaching traffic. It also dims the high beams for sharp turns and then re-engages the high beams if there is no approaching traffic once the turn is completed.

Parental control

Parents who are afraid their teen driver might speed or be distracted by playing the vehicle’s audio system at an excessive volume can use Ford’s new MyKey system to limit speed and volume. When programmed, MyKey limits the speed to 80 miles per hour. It can also be programmed to limit the audio volume and to sound a continuous alarm if seat belts are left unfastened. Eventually available in all Fords, MyKey is offered in the recently released 2010 Escape Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid.

GPS vehicle tracking

Parents wishing to expand on the Big Brother theme can purchase the LiveViewGPS Live Trac PT-10. Retailing for $550 with a $40 per month subscription fee, it is a GPS tracking system that updates a vehicle’s position every 10 seconds. Watching it live requires only Internet access. Small and portable, the tracking device can be moved from vehicle to vehicle. It can also alert parents through their cell phone if the vehicle’s preset speed threshold is exceeded or if the vehicle enters/exits certain areas. It and similar LiveViewGPS products are also handy tools for businesses that need to track their fleet vehicles.

Cameras

Not so many years ago there was an undeclared competition among vehicle manufacturers to see who could scatter the largest number of cup holders around a vehicle’s interior. Now the competition seems to have switched to cameras. Camera systems that provide a view behind the vehicle when shifted into reverse are so yesterday. The new trend is toward multiple cameras providing enlarged fields of view. Available on its current 7 Series, BMW’s Valeo multicamera system employs three to five cameras, depending on the version, to display a panoramic view when parking. Precise distances are indicated by lines on the image. It also sounds an alarm when the vehicle closes in on an unseen object during the maneuver. Infiniti’s Around View Monitor has four wide-angle cameras mounted in the front, rear and sides, providing a bird’s-eye, 360-degree view for parking purposes. Distances are illustrated by color graphics, and a beeping alarm sounds when the vehicle closes in on an object. It’s available on the EX35 and FX.

Driver capability

Although it might be beneficial to have a system that evaluates driver aptitude and shuts down the vehicle when incompetence is detected, we aren’t there yet. But technology exists that measures a driver’s fitness and issues warnings when a driver is judged overly tired or impaired. Attention Assist, found in the 2010 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, remembers a driver’s normal behavior behind the wheel and establishes it as the driver’s baseline profile. Continually measuring factors such as speed, lateral acceleration, steering wheel angle, pedal use and so forth, the system determines if there is any deviation from the baseline. If so, it alerts the driver visually and audibly that it’s break time. Even external influences such as crosswind and road surface are factored in.

In-car Internet

Although pure Wi-Fi Internet access from a moving vehicle is still in the future — albeit the near future — there are systems that allow for surfing using cell phone technology. The first system to turn your vehicle into a Wi-Fi hotspot is Autonet Mobile. Using a portable router mounted in the trunk or other out-of-the-way location, this system uses a 3G network to supply an uninterrupted signal regardless of cell tower blind spots, tunnels and so forth. In addition to the $399 router, there is a monthly subscription fee of either $29 or $59 based on estimated usage. Chrysler currently offers its UConnect Web system in several models while Ford offers a system called Ford Work Solutions on the current F-150 pickup truck that primarily targets contractors. It dovetails several technologies into an integrated system that can complete a variety of tasks from maintaining your tool inventory to sending out invoices, creating spreadsheets and surfing the Internet through the Sprint Mobile Broadband Network.

Russ Heaps is a freelance writer based in South Carolina.

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